Column| Unravelling The Quest In Courts For Ram Mandir
After a long wait of 500 years, Bhagwan Ramlala on 22 January 2024 is going to be consecrated at his janmasthal in Ayodhya. Shri Ram Mandir at Ayodhya is a manifestation of unbridled faith and continuous struggle by people of Bharat for reclaiming Shri Ram Janmabhoomi. The unanimous verdict on Shri Ram Janmbhoomi by the Honourable Supreme Court followed by the formation of a public trust “Shri Ram Janmbhoomi Teerth Kshetra'' has paved the way forward for the construction of the Shri Ram Mandir. This article attempts to sketch out the legal history by unravelling the key events that led to the final verdict in the matter as well as to analyse the noteworthy aspects of the said verdict.
The dispute in the appeals filed before the Supreme Court has arisen out of four regular suits which were instituted between 1950 and 1989. However, the seeds of the legal dispute were sown as far as in January 1885 when Mahant Raghubar Das filed the first suit seeking to build a temple in the adjoining land. On 24 December 1885, the trial judge dismissed the suit, however, observing that there could be no question or doubt regarding the possession and ownership of the Hindus over the Chabutra. On 18 March 1886, the District Judge dismissed the appeal against the judgment but struck off the observations relating to the ownership of Hindus of the Chabutra. On 1 November 1886, the Judicial Commissioner of Oudh dismissed the second Appeal, noting that the Mahant had failed to present evidence of title to establish ownership of the Chabutra. On 22nd December 1949, the idol of Bhagwan Ram appeared inside the structure, followed by pooja initiated by devotees. The erstwhile Government locked the entrance declaring it to be a “contested area”.
On 16 January 1950, a suit was instituted by Gopal Singh Visharad (Suit 1) before the Civil Judge at Faizabad, alleging that he was being prevented by officials of the government from entering the inner courtyard of the disputed site to offer worship. A declaration was sought to allow the plaintiff to offer prayers in accordance with the rites and tenets of Santan Dharma at the main Janmabhumi, near the idols, within the inner courtyard, without hindrance. On 19 January 1950, the Court ordered restraint on attempts to prevent the idols from being removed from the disputed site and from causing interference in the performance of puja. On 26 May 1955, the appeal against the interim order was dismissed by the High Court.
On 5 December 1950, another suit was instituted by Paramhans Ramchandra Das (Suit 2) before the Civil Judge, Faizabad seeking similar prayers. Suit 2 was subsequently withdrawn on 18 September 1990. On 1 April 1950, a Court Commissioner was appointed in Suit 1 to prepare a map of the disputed premises. On 25 June 1950, the Commissioner submitted a report, together with two site plans of the disputed premises which were numbered as Plan nos 1 and 2 to the Trial Court.
On 17 December 1959, Nirmohi Akhara filed a suit (Suit 3) seeking possession of the said land on which the structure stood, as well as to hand over the management and charge of the temple. On 18 December 1961, the UP Sunni Waqf Board filed a suit (Suit 4) seeking possession of the structure and removal of the idol of Ram Lalla. On 6 January 1964, the trial of Suits 1, 3 and 4 was consolidated and Suit 4 was made the leading case.
In 1984, Viswa Hindu Parishad constituted a group to begin the Ram Janmabhoomi Movement under the leadership of Lal Krishna Advani. On 25 January 1986, Advocate Umesh Chandra Pandey approached the Sessions Court appealing for the gates of the structure to be unlocked and to allow darshan within the inner courtyard. On 1 February 1986, the District Judge allowed pooja and darshan by ordering the locks to be removed. In response, a Babri Mosque Action Committee was created. On 1 July 1989, Deoki Nandan Agrawal, on behalf of the deity (Bhagwan Shri Ram Virajman) and the birthplace of Lord Ram (Asthan Shri Ram Janmabhumi) filed a title suit (Suit 5) in respect of the disputed premises. Suit 5 was tried with the other suits.
On 10 July 1989, all suits were transferred to the Allahabad High Court. On 21 July 1989, a three judge Bench was constituted by the Chief Justice of the High Court for the trial of the suits. On an application by the State of Uttar Pradesh, the High Court passed an interim order on 14 August 1989, directing the parties to maintain status quo with respect to the property in dispute.
In 1989, shilanyas was performed by the Viswa Hindu Parishad near the disputed area. The next year, on 25 September 1990, Lal Krishna Advani launched a rath yatra from Somanth to Ayodhya. On the historically significant fate of 6th December 1992, the structure was razed down by karsevaks, followed by creation of a make-shift temple in its place. On 16 December, a committee led by retired High Court Justice M. S. Liberhan was constituted to look into circumstances leading to the demolition of the Babri Mosque and the communal riots. On 7 January 1993, the erstwhile government led by Narasimha Rao issued an ordinance acquiring the 67.7 acres of land, subsequently an Act titled Acquisition of Certain Areas at Ayodhya Act, 1993 was passed. A reference to the Supreme Court under Article 143 of the Constitution was also made by the President. The constitutional validity of the said Act was questioned in the case of Ismail Faruqui & Ors. v. Union of India which was decided on 24 October 1994 by a majority of 3:2 upholding the constitutionality of the Act, as well as by ruling that offering namaz at mosque was not integral to Islam. The Constitution Bench declined to answer the Presidential reference and, as a result, all pending suits and proceedings in relation to the disputed premises stood revived.
The recording of oral evidence before the High Court commenced on 24 July 1996. During the course of the hearings, the High Court issued directions on 23 October 2002 to the Archaeological Survey of India to carry out a scientific investigation and have the disputed site surveyed by Ground Penetrating Technology or Geo-Radiology. In order to facilitate a further analysis, the High Court directed the ASI on 5 March 2003 to undertake the excavation of the disputed site. A fourteen-member team was constituted, and a site plan was prepared indicating the number of trenches to be laid out and excavated. On 22 August 2003, the ASI submitted its final report. The High Court examined 533 exhibits and depositions of 87 witnesses traversing 13,990 pages. Besides this, counsel relied on over a thousand reference books in Sanskrit, Hindi, Persian, Turkish, French and English, ranging from subjects as diverse as history, culture, archaeology and religion.
The arguments in the High Court were mainly led by Advocate Ravi Shanker Prasad and Senior Advocate Zafaryab Jilani. The High Court delivered its judgment in the four suits on 30 September 2010. The High Court held that the suits filed by the Sunni Central Waqf Board and by Nirmohi Akhara were barred by limitation. Despite having held that those two suits were barred by time, the High Court held in a split 2:1 verdict that the Hindu and Muslim parties were joint holders of the disputed premises, and each of them was entitled to one third of the disputed property, with the remaining one-third being granted to the Nirmohi Akhara.
Proceedings before the Supreme Court
On 9 May 2011, the Supreme Court admitted several appeals and stayed the operation of the judgment of the Allahabad High Court. During the pendency of the appeals, parties were directed to maintain status quo with respect to the disputed premises. On 10 August 2015, a three judge Bench allowed the Commissioner, Faizabad Division to replace the old and worn out tarpaulin sheets over the makeshift structure under which the idols were placed with new sheets of the same size and quality.
On 14 March 2018, a three judge Bench heard arguments on whether the judgment in Ismail Faruqui required reconsideration. On 27 September 2018, the three judge Bench of this Court by a majority of 2:1 declined to refer the judgment for reconsideration and listed the appeals against the impugned judgement for hearing. By an administrative order dated 8 January 2019, the Chief Justice of India constituted a five judge Bench to hear the appeals.
On 26 February 2019, the Supreme Court referred the parties to a Court appointed and monitored mediation to explore the possibility of bringing about a permanent solution to the issues raised in the appeals. On 8 March 2019, a panel of mediators comprising of (i) Justice Fakkir Mohamed Ibrahim Kalifulla, Former Supreme Court Judge; (ii) Sri Sri Ravi Shankar; and (iii) Mr Sriram Panchu, Senior Advocate was constituted. Time granted to the mediators to complete the mediation proceedings was extended on 10 May 2019. Since no settlement had been reached on 2 August 2019, the hearing of the appeals was directed to commence.
The Constitution Bench led by CJI Ranjan Gogoi, Justices Sarad Arvidn Bobde, Dr. Dhananjaya Chandrachud, Asok Bhushan and Abdul Nazeer began hearing the arguments in the case from 6 August. Mr K Parasaran and Dr Rajeev Dhavan, learned Senior Advocates led the arguments from both the sides. After a marathon 40 days of hearing that witnessed arguments of all hues and colour that held the nation in complete attention, the judgment was reserved.
In order to determine the questions raised in the appeals, the Court framed 16 issues, which can broadly be categorised as, first, being the maintainability of the suits; and second, being the determination of title of the property. These issues included a wide set of questions including - Maintainability of the suits: (a) whether the suits are barred by limitation? (b) whether the 1885 suit filed by Mahant Raghubar Das attracts the doctrine of res judicata to the suits filed by the Hindu parties? (c) whether Nirmohi Akhara has the rights of management over the disputed site?; And, the question regarding Determination of title included: (a) was the disputed site, Ram Janmabhoomi, a juristic entity? (b) was there a temple beneath the disputed structure? (c) if yes, whether the existence of a temple beneath the disputed structure will give title to the Hindu parties? (d) was there a dedication of the disputed property to the Almighty by Babur, making the land inalienable? if not, was there continued use of the disputed site for prayers by the Muslims, making it a waqf by user? (e) possessory rights over outer courtyard and inner courtyard.
The Final Verdict
The Constitution Bench passed a unanimous judgment on 9 November 2019 deciding the title of the property in favour of the deity Shri Ram Lalla where the Hindu parties have been seeking to construct a temple for Bhagwan Ram Lalla. The Court also granted a perpetual injunction against other parties from interfering in the construction of a new temple at the site.
The Bench began its conclusion by stating that the facts, evidence and oral arguments of the case had traversed the realms of history, archaeology, religion and the law. The law however must stand apart from political contestations over history, ideology and religion. The Bench stated that it was tasked with an adjudicatory task of unique dimension, in the sense that it involved the gigantic task of deciding a dispute which clearly was a religious one with unprecedented importance, however in the eyes of law, it was a dispute over ownership of an immovable property. The Bench held that the Court does not decide title on the basis of faith or belief but on the basis of evidence to decide the ownership and possession. It was held that for deciding title to the disputed property, the Court applies settled principles of evidence to adjudicate upon which party has established a claim to the immovable property.
Having addressed the preliminary considerations regarding maintainability of suits, the Court went on to address whether either of Sunni Waqf Board or Shri Ram Lalla Virajman had established a title to the disputed property by virtue of having continuous possession over the property. As the Nirmohi Akhara’s suit was not maintainable, the question then became whether the deity or the Sunni Waqf Board had the possession of the site.
The Court held that the site was a composite whole. It said that the installation of a railing by the British in 1857 did not bring about a legal sub-division of the property into inner and outer courtyard. Nevertheless, it relied on the division as a tool for analysing the two parties’ possession claims. Having stated so, the Court went on to hold that on balance of probabilities, there was clear evidence to indicate that the worship by the Hindus in the outer courtyard continued unimpeded in spite of the setting up of a grill-brick wall in 1857. Their possession of the outer courtyard stands established together with the incidents attaching to their control over it. Specifically, it pointed out the consistent pattern of possession and worship in the outer courtyard post erection of the railings by the British in 1857. Moreover, the Court held the existence of specific points of Hindu worship (Ram Chabutra, Sita Rasoi and Bhandar) in the outer courtyard. The opening of additional doors by the British for entry into the outer courtyard due to the rush of Hindu devotees also was taken as indicating the consistent pattern of worship. All these cumulatively were found to have negated the claim by Muslims that they had settled possession of the outer courtyard.
As regards the inner courtyard, it was held that while the inner courtyard contained the mosque, the Sunni Waqf Board had failed to establish that it had been dedicated as waqf by continuous usage. Rather, there was ample evidence to establish worship by the Hindus prior to the annexation of Oudh by the British in 1857. After the setting up of the grill-brick wall, the structure continued to exist and namaz began to be offered within its precincts. Specifically, it pointed to the admission by Moazzin of the Mosque in 1858 that previously, the symbol of Janmasthan had been inside the disputed site for hundreds of years and the Hindus performed puja inside the three-domed structure.
It was further held that the three-way bifurcation by the High Court was legally unsustainable and that dividing the land, which is merely of 1500 square yards in dimensions, will not subserve the interest of either of the parties or secure a lasting sense of peace and tranquillity.
The Bench further held that on a balance of probabilities, the evidence in respect of the possessory claim of the Hindus to the composite whole of the disputed property stands on a better footing than the evidence adduced by the Muslims, and hence they are entitled to the disputed property. However, exercising its extraordinary powers under Article 142 of the Constitution, the Supreme Court directed that in order to promote tolerance and mutual co-existence to nourish the secular commitment of the nation, land measuring 5 acres be allotted to the Sunni Central Waqf Board either by the Central Government out of the acquired land or by the Government of Uttar Pradesh within the city of Ayodhya.
Accordingly, the Union Government was directed to form a scheme within three months for formation of a trust for construction of a temple and all necessary, incidental and supplemental matters. Once the Trust came into existence, possession of the inner and outer courtyards was directed to be handed over to the Board of Trustees of the Trust. The right to worship at the disputed property was affirmed subject to any restrictions imposed by the relevant authorities with respect to the maintenance of peace and order and the performance of orderly worship. The Union Government was also directed to give adequate representation to the Nirmohi Akhara in the trust formed under the Acquisition of Certain Area at Ayodhya Act, 1993.
In an addenda to the main judgment, one of the Judges who like others on the Bench chose to be anonymous, while being in agreement with the judgment, recorded seperate reasons on whether the disputed structure is the birthplace of Lord Ram according to the faith and belief of the Hindu devotees. He held that the sequence of the events clearly indicated that faith and belief of Hindus was that the birthplace of Lord Ram was in the three-dome structure which was constructed at the janamasthan. The fact that Hindus were by constructing an iron wall, dividing the premises, kept outside the three-dome structure cannot be said to alter their faith and belief regarding the birthplace of Lord Ram. The worship on the Ram Chabutra in the outer courtyard was symbolic worship of Lord Ram who was believed to be born in the premises. It was thus held by the Judge that faith and belief of Hindus since prior to construction of the structure and subsequent thereto has always been that Janmasthan of Lord Ram is the same place, and the said faith and belief stood proved by documentary and oral evidence.
However, attempts to create hurdles in reclaiming the Janmabhoomi continued, with a review petition being filed by M. Siddiq through LRs seeking review of the judgment and order dated 9 November, 2019. The petition was ultimately dismissed on December 12, 2019 by a 5-judge Bench of the Supreme Court thus settling the legal dispute forever.
The Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Tirtha Kshetra trust was established on 5 February 2020 to oversee the construction of the Shri Ram Temple. On 5 August 2020, the Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone for the Shri Ram Temple. The ritual was consecrated with sacred soil from all pilgrim centres and water from all the holy rivers of Bharat. Subsequently, with the contribution from the first citizen being the President of Bharat on the auspicious day of Makara Sankranti, the 44-day-long “Nidhi Samparn Abhiyan” was launched which could very well be one of the biggest outreach campaigns even globally, wherein over 12 crores families from about 5.5 lakh cities and villages, ranging across all sects and sections of the society overwhelmingly participated, and contributed to the construction of the grand mandir.
The Shri Ram Mandir is a manifestation of the centuries long struggle for reclaiming cultural and civilisational sacred spaces. Along with the construction of the grand mandir at the Shri Ram Janmbhoomi in Ayodhya, the social and national life inspired by the values of Shri Ram will be established through collective resolve and efforts, thus paving the way forward for building a Bharatiya society and state, modern in its outlook and form, yet rooted in its cultural and civilisation.
Author is an Advocate, practising at the Supreme Court of India & Delhi High Court.
[The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. Verdictum does not assume any responsibility or liability for the contents of the article.]